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Why do we read novels? To plunge into a fully realized world, peopled with colorful characters and lively scenes that drive, and are driven by, a compelling plot? Or should a novel offer more than just escape, a way to engage with how words, arranged in certain ways, can convey meaning (or fail to)?

Anna Moschovakis asks questions like that in "Participation," her second novel published by Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press. A translator and award-winning poet, Moschovakis at most flirts with traditional notions of fiction in a fragmented narrative that feels both loose and dense, intimate and distant. She abandons storytelling conventions as she explores human relationships and social dynamics under strain in this era of climate instability, technological oversaturation and political dysfunction.

Readers used to traditional novels might not respond well to "Participation." Characters are largely indistinct as individuals, most identified by letters rather than names, genders intentionally withheld, the physical settings generic. Linear time blurs, traditional sentences break down into snatches of poetry, online-style chatter, lists and line drawings, philosophical ruminations and descriptions of dreams. "There is a theory of the psyche that claims life narratives are necessary to the formation of a coherent subjective self. This theory has always terrified me. Maybe I'm afraid of stories. Or of selves," Moschovakis writes early on, a warning to her readers that they're in for a challenge.

The action in "Participation," as it were, involves two reading groups, Love and Anti-Love. The narrator of the book's opening sections, E, a member of Anti-Love, is juggling three jobs, trying to reconnect with her mysteriously missing mentor, and ambivalently cultivating a virtual relationship with S, another reading group member.

Moschovakis reveals details sparingly and in flashes, demanding close attention as she employs a style that seems intended to capture the wreckage of our collective attention span.

Much of the book's first half is spent struggling to pull meaning from its highly experimental form. For the very ambitious, "Participation" would likely reward multiple readings. Some relief finally blows in with a series of vivid sections titled "News Reports," which describe the landfall and aftermath of a hurricane in the region inhabited by the characters in terse, social media-style posts, specific locations blanked out.

"Has anyone been up ___ Road in ___? Are the houses up there O.K.? I have friends in ___. Does anyone know anything about that area? My parents are in ___ and I can't get through to them." It goes on for pages, growing more frightening in its relatable impersonality.

But Moschovakis never lets "Participation" achieve storytelling momentum for long. Soon after the "News Reports" sections, she forthrightly interrogates readers who might have wished she had built on their intensity. "There is a version of this story in which the city where Love once met … is underwater, in chaos, a battleground or a breeding ground or a mass grave. You wanted a story, and that would have been a good one."

But it's not the one she wants to tell. Soon we're back with E and S, who eventually meet in person, in a series of scenes and vignettes that all too briefly anchor the novel emotionally. Moschovakis writes lovely prose and has a talent for insightful description, and if she ever did try to write the kind of story she seems determined to disown with "Participation," it would probably be a great read.

Patrick Condon is a city editor at the Star Tribune.


By: Anna Moschovakis.

Publisher: Coffee House Press, 216 pages, $16.95.